The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

The Importance of Being Malala

By Mosarrap Hossain Khan 

Yesterday Malala Yousafzai, the education activist who was near-fatally shot by the Pakistani Taliban on 9 November, 2012, spoke at the UN on the right to education for every child anywhere in the globe. A noble thought, indeed.

However, Malala’s appeal to the Taliban, to the UN, and the people in general seems to be drowned out in the cacophony of opinions. The twitterverse appears to be divided between those who see Malala as a champion of education/women’s rights and those who view Malala as a pawn in the hands of the west for defaming the Muslim world.

I am certainly no expert – either in my individual capacity or in my capacity as a co-editor of Café Dissensus – in unearthing the complexity of the whole situation. But I did follow Malala’s story after she was shot. In the immediate aftermath of the furor over her shooting, I too expressed my skepticism about the reaction of the western world, western media, and the ‘liberals’ in the Muslim world. And to tell the truth, I still remain deeply skeptical.

Does that mean I am opposed to women’s education and their rights? Certainly, not. My skepticism does not stem from my antagonism to women’s education. Rather, reducing Malala’s story as an exclusively woman’s story is something that gets my goat. Because this line of argument has been the trajectory of western narrative about the ills plaguing the Muslim countries.

Another example that comes to mind is that of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was killed on the streets of Tehran during the Green Movement in Iran. In fact, in an earlier review of Shirin Neshat’s film, Women without Men, I had raised a similar question: Are there other ways to conceptualize the project of justice and democracy in the Islamic countries other than viewing it through the monochromatic lens of women’s emancipation? 

Among the pieces that I came across on Malala, I read Shamsie’s article (published a day after Malala was shot) with interest. She poses a very important question toward the end of her piece: ‘For political differences, seek political solutions. But what do you do in the face of an enemy with a pathological hatred of woman?’

Despite all the complexity in Shamsie’s argument, what I object to is how the Malala story becomes a story about a woman who stands in for all women. I will briefly state the problem with this kind of an argument. Some of these observations might appear repetitive by now.

* The Malala story cannot be that easily separated from its political context. Shamsie writes: ‘There’s no need for the Taliban to invent propaganda against the American and Pakistan state (although they do) – both governments supply an excess of recruitment material for those who hate them. So if you view the Taliban simply through the prism of the war on terror and Pakistan and the United States, it’s possible to think the process can be reversed; policies can be changed; everyone can stop being murderous and duplicitous.’

While I sincerely applaud Shamsie’s eagerness not to fall into the trap of blame and counter-blame and her effort to forge a new conceptual framework that will allow us to move beyond the older paradigm of understanding this incident merely as a political fallout, how could one not talk politics when international as well as domestic political compulsions have produced something like the Taliban and Pakistani Taliban? Can one develop a new conceptual framework beyond politics, which is the foundation of the problems plaguing Pakistan today?

** In the current discourse about Malala and the Taliban, there is an effort to posit Taliban as distinct from the culture in which it originated. Shamsie claims that it is Pakistan that produced the Taliban as it also produced Malala. Perhaps we should probe a little deeper and try to understand the Pashtun culture that undergirds some of the strict tenets that the Taliban seems to postulate. If we take a closer look into the strict codes of honor in Pashtun culture, it will give us a better understanding of where the strict patriarchal (and regressive) interpretations about women’s rights come from. (And I hope I am not offering a culturalist/essentialist view here.)

Here one might cite the example of Kabul in the 1960s. In fact, social media is often abuzz with pictures of women in mini-skirts roaming the streets of Kabul. Such an anomaly, if it at all represents a wide-spread practice in the country in the 60s, begs us the question: What really happened between 1960s and the 1990s, which led to the origin of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Taliban?

The answer is obvious: POLITICS. Between 1960s and the 1990s, there have been significant political developments (which I need not repeat here). These developments have shaped much of the current tension between the Taliban/Pakistani Taliban and the west.

A related question here: If there was no foreign invasion, would the Pashtun culture have taken in all the winds of change that has been blowing over the globe? Would Pashtun culture have shed its patriarchal bias? I have no answer. I am merely positing a question. (Here again, I am afraid, I might be taken to task as a cultural essentialist.)

*** Further Shamsie writes: ‘But then there’s Malala Yousafzai, standing in for all the women attacked, oppressed, condemned by the Taliban.’ While Shamsie makes it clear that Malala stands ‘for all the women attacked, oppressed, condemned by the Taliban’, it is amusing to see how the present discourse about Malala’s speech at the UN has gained a wider sweep. Malala doesn’t anymore stand for the oppressed women but for all women.

Such an argument is orietalist at best and a little infantile. Even if we concede that ‘all women’ is shorthand for Muslim women, we will still agree that the category of ‘Muslim women’ is a differentiated entity. Women’s oppressions, their struggles, and their movements are historically and geographically specific. To claim that Malala stands for all women or for all Muslim women would be an act of dehistoricizing women’s struggles around the globe.

To give credit to the young woman, Malala herself does not reduce her speech as only for women or for all women.

While the debates about Malala’s UN speech will continue, let us listen to this brave girl speak.

Pic-credit: here

[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. He is also the Co-editor of Cafe Dissensus. Check out his  Personal Website.]

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